In the Candy Store of iPhone Apps, Users Treat Health Apps Like Broccoli

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Robert Galbraith/REUTERS

The average American’s smartphone may be pretty dumb about health, according to a new survey by the Pew Internet & American Life Project. While some 37% of Americans aged 18 to 30 may use their mobile phones to access the Internet, and an equal amount use mobile software programs known as apps, the Pew survey suggests few of those apps have anything to do with health.

According to the survey, 29% of cell-phone users aged 18 to 29 have used their phone to look up health information at some point. But 15% have downloaded health applications to help manage their health. (More on Want Good Health? There Are 10 Apps for That).

The numbers are predictably reduced when older adults are included in the survey because older adults are less likely to use apps in general: 17% of all adults over 18 have looked up health information at least once on their phones, while only 9% of all adult cell-phone users own health apps.

Even the study’s primary author, Suzannah Fox, admitted to NPR: “I don’t have a single health app on my phone.”

The Pew survey also revealed that people of color were much more likely than whites to have installed health apps like NutriSleuth (which helps decipher nutrition labels on packaged foods) and Medscape (which is a mobile version of the popular medical website WebMD) on their phones: 15% of African Americans used such apps, compared with 11% of Hispanic and 7% of white cell-phone users. This disparity may have something to do with the fact that African Americans and Latinos are more likely to use their phones as primary gateways to the Internet, while white phone users more frequently have Web-enabled computers at home. (More on How Not to Get Sick)

The dearth of health info on most smartphones is surprising, considering that there are thousands of available health apps, many of them from well-regarded hospitals and medical journals. Want to lose weight, diagnose symptoms, chart anxiety or quit smoking? There’s an app for that. To look up any medical term or calculate your BMI, there’s an app for that too.

Data have also suggested that using mobile technology to improve health really works: for instance, apps can help reduce stress and improve mental health, while text messaging may help people stick with their diets and lose weight. (More on Top 10 Technology Bans).

Of course, not all apps are created equal, so you want to make sure that your medical-information app is coming from a reputable source — just as you would on a computer or in the three-dimensional world.

For a head start, see TIME Healthland’s Top 10 Health Applications.